My alma mater, King Edward VII School, Taiping is in its 125th year this year. Being one of the oldest schools in the country, it had its beginnings in July of 1883, 9 years after the Pangkor Treaty that ended the Larut Wars and the protracted succession struggle for the Perak Sultanate.
Back then, the British already had control over the Straits Settlement states of Singapore, Malacca and Penang (Penang Free and Melaka High School already existed). They were eager to strengthen their monopoly over tin in Perak and expand their influence in Southeast Asia. The opportunity arrived when an internal dispute over the Perak Sultanate and the machinations of local Chinese business and triad leaders resulted in the Pangkor Treaty that effectively put the state under British protection.
Since Taiping was the centre of the tin industry and after the murder of the first British Resident, JWW Birch (1875), the state capital was shifted to Taiping in 1876, while Kuala Kangsar remained the royal town. The end of the Larut Wars and the stability provided by the British, saw the Chinese community in the state who were located mainly in the major tin mining areas of Taiping and the Kinta Valley, thrive.
Without having to go into the entire history of the town, this was the historical backdrop against which Central School, as it was called then was founded. The school started as a small wooden building along what was later called Station Road (the first railway line in the country ran from Taiping to Port Weld) with only 13 students. It was named Central School simply because of its central location in a town that was growing fast with increasing British influence in the state.
According to research done by my friend M.N.Taib,
"...the British colonialist and early Chinese interests coincided in the inception of the school. The British wanted semi-literate running dogs, as it were. and the Chinese wanted to anglicize their children. The Malays were scared of sending their children for Western education for fear that they would 'masuk Christian'. Most of the Malay kids who came to the school then were children of the landed gentry and the Jawi Pekan - Indian muslims"
By 1895 when the Federal Regulation Policy was instituted which stipulated among other things that an English education was an important criterion for recruitment into civil service, the student population had grown to 159. However, only 28 were Malay boys. This bears out M.N.Taib's findings.
Later, at the conference of rulers in 1903, Perak Resident J.P Rodger observed that there was a lack of Malay participation in the civil service. To address this, it was suggested that a special English school be established. In the end, however, it was decided that certain existing schools be selected to educate more locals, especially Malays, and the Central School was one of those chosen.
With increasing enrolment, a larger building was needed. It was decided, in 1903, that the school shift to a spot further up along Station Road where the country's first railway station stood. The station was shifted to its present premises, still along Station Road, and work on the construction of the new school began. The headmaster at this time was one Roger Francis Stainer, one of the most famous and loved persons to ever head the school in its chequered history.
When the school shifted to the new building, Stainer was at the helm. The official opening on Jan 19, 1906 was performed by the then Sultan of Perak, Sultan Idris-Mersid-El Azam Shah Iskandar Shah. He also renamed the school King Edward VII School, in honour of the new King of England, Edward, who had ascended the throne in 1901 upon the death of Queen Victoria.
The rest as they say, is history...history as it ACTUALLY WAS, that is.
Now comes the real subject of this post. The re-writing and re-interpretation of the school's history:
A wise man once said:
"History is the present. That's why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth" while another said,
"Inanimate objects never live, yet at the same time live forever"
The above was how it was decided by some Tigers (as we who come from the olde school like to call ourselves) to celebrate a meaningful yet meaningless 125th Anniversary in 2008. Mortal man's way to immortality is not only through great achievements; lesser men seek it through attaching themselves to inanimate objects that live forever. This is so true of how this 125th Anniversary celebration was conceived and is being carried out. It remains a standing joke to those in the know.
King Edward VII School became 100 years old in 1983. The landmark date came to pass without notice. In many ways this reflects the general lackadaisical attitude of Tigers towards communal details; a selfish nature that is reflected in the inability of the alumni associations (we have two! One in Taiping and another in KL) to become anything better than social clubs after decades of existence. I say this in comparison to other alumni associations of many established schools. Anyway, why did we notice the 125th year when we missed the 100th year?
The story goes like this. In 1983, the Tigers who decided to celebrate 125 years were still building their careers. Being Tigers, we do not mind showing great camaraderie between Tigers but few of us volunteer to do anything substantial for the school or any greater good. The true history of the school holds little importance to most Tigers. Moreover, in the history of the alumni associations, the annual calendar consists only of one agenda; the annual dinner. In 1983, Tiger Mohaideen was still quite new in his current position as President of the OE Association in Taiping and as for the OE Association in KL, the focus was as usual on the annual dinners. Probably none had the stomach to undertake the task of commemorating a centenary, if the landmark was noticed at all.
Coming back to the proponents of the 125th Anniversary celebrations, some of them did (or do) have distinguished careers and now in their retirement years, they somehow feel a compunction to leave their names behind "in stone"...immortality perhaps. What better way than to etch names into "stone" that "will live forever as long as the Taiping Hills stand", borrowing a line from the school song.
The first attempt at "immortality" was in 2005 when the coterie "brilliantly" decided to celebrate the school's centenary! Great fanfare was generated and a committee of eminent Tigers was set up! As I said, Tigers are generally not bothered about the true history of the school; they assume too much. Two errors in interpreting historical facts here:
1. They assumed the school had its beginning with the completion of the new building in 1905. This is also erroneous because the school only became known as King Edward VII School in January, 1906.
2. The school had been in continuous existence since 1883! It was not set up at the turn of the 20th century!
I have often wondered whether this arbitrary consideration for historical accuracy is a reflection of the state of History (as a subject) being taught in our schools. Sometimes I think it is the elitist "I can, therefore I do it" mentality that breeds this kind arrogance and disregard for truth. That there is blatant warping and "dis-interpretation" of the country's history is well documented. Heck! For instance, there is no documentation to even show that the British ever "divided and ruled this country! Incidentally, King Edward VII School, Taiping has produced the most number of Director Generals of Education compared to any other school; but that is another matter altogether.
Anyway, the whole idea of celebrating a centenary in 2005 was scuttled when the Department of Museums & Antiquities came up with the official age of the school as 122 (as at 2005) upon an official query by well-known old boy, the late Tiger U. Ravinder "Junjung" Singh (see letter).
But if you know the Tigers, you will also know they are taught never to give up easily. This would have been the same with the 125 anniversary coterie who would never want to be victims of a "near miss" in their date with destiny. Some bright spark amongst them suggested that a 125th anniversary be celebrated in 2008! As far as I am concerned, they might as well have celebrated the 122nd anniversary in 2005! What is the significance of a 125 years anyway? Why not 127 years or, 130 years or, 131 years or, ... whatever? Maybe 150 years can be considered significant enough.
But wait a minute...that would not be until 2033! Most of the 125th Anniversary celebration proponents would be dead by then! How to be immortal?
So that is why we now have a 125 year anniversary celebration. It is not about the school per se, nor is it about the historical significance of a 125 years or is it about the future of the school; it may just boil down to be about seeking immortality in a few tons of bricks that are a 125 years old!
And to celebrate the reaching of this "grand milestone" the following projects were instituted in 2008:
a. The launching of a King Edward VII School Museum
b. The launching of a RM1,000,000 trust fund for the school
c. The series of events in 2008 between May and October:
- Soft launch (May)
- Old Boys Vs present school team rugby game (June)
- 10-A-Side Rugby Tournament (July)
- Edwardians' Parade through Taiping Town (31st July)
- Old Edwardians' Golf Tournament (11th October)
- 125th Anniversary Dinner and the launching of the Coffee Table book (11th October)
d. The publishing of a coffee-table book covering the first 100 years of the school
At first glance, the above could appear impressive but lets scrutinize the list one by one:
(i) Museum: is a physical museum still viable and relevant in this cyber day and age? Who bears the maintenance cost? The trust fund?
(ii) RM1 million trust fund: probably take another 125 years to achieve a million bucks!
(iii) The events: Apart from the parade and the soft launch the rest are annual events anyway
(iv) The coffee-table book: 100 years? Why not 125 years?
The most telling evidence of the relative insignificance of 125 years is the fact that the promoters are publishing a commemorative coffee table book that covers only the first 100 years! Apparently the fixation with the 100 years is hard to shake off! This to me is the most ludicrous aspect of the whole affair. Could it be that 100 years is "more sexy" than 125?
25 years of recent history (1983 to 2008) or 20% of 125 is not recognized and I wonder how many younger Tigers are disenfranchised by this. Needless to say, none of the promoters of the book were in school after 1983.
The students in school today will be the old boys of tomorrow yet their only participation is a walkabout around Taiping; it was no parade. They will be the ones celebrating the 150th anniversary and wondering what the hell was the 125th year. They are the ones who will read the coffee-table book in future and find it does not include them even though they were a substantial part of the history.
Well, someone said; "A book is the only immortality" and I know a bit about the circumstances under which the coffee-table book is being done. I just can't wait to get my hands on a copy...if only to see who the immortals are.
As for the "gala" dinner on the 11th of October...well, what can and will it be but a glorified annual dinner. It will be devoid of alcohol because the Sultan of Perak is supposed to be attending. Devoid of alcohol!?! I thought it is also about celebrating tradition! I suppose it is okay to sacrifice tradition when there are possible datukships in the offing. Hmmm...they wish!!!
Also, why can't the organizers give all the students a fete on 11th October albeit on a less elaborate menu. It will not take a whole lot of money to do that and some old boys would be more than willing to chip in. For about RM15 per kid, for say 2,000 is only RM30,000. The students will be instilled with a sense of pride and surely remember their involvement with the celebrations for years to come! Isn't this what celebrating milestones for schools all about? For the future generations and not so much about past laurels?
Instead, the organizers have planned 100 tables on a 40:60 split between indoor and outdoor tables in the town hall; the difference being RM3,000 and RM1,000. I wish them luck in elevating this dinner into something greater than the usual annual mundane affair...they need loads of it!
After all the merry-making has died down, the school will again be left to continue its drift into history with nary a major contribution from the alumni. I would not be surprised if the museum and trust fund projects that were started to add “glamour” to the 125 anniversary celebration will languish and eventually be left to die naturally. This to me is the reflection of the great Old Edwardians affliction; hangat hangat tahi ayam mentality! This is why in a 125 years, the Associations do not even have a brick under its name let alone set up anything long term for the school.
I was in King Edward VII School for 10 of the 125 and among the highlights, the best were the rugby memories and the very good friends I made. For whatever I think about the 125 Anniversary dinner, I concurred when some of my old teammates thought it was a good opportunity to meet up. It has been exactly thirty years since we beat RMC to become the official Malaysian champs for the first time. We had about 5 tables booked for the 11th of October until we were told of the table segregation; not all could afford or were willing to pay RM300 for an ordinary dinner.
In three weeks we managed to organize our own reunion dinner in Taiping on the day before the 125 anniversary dinner, The team work was almost like 30 years ago, only better. We will have more than 100 attendees, each given a genuine personalized jersey, in the same design (pix) 30 years ago.
It is not our intention to boycott the 125 anniversary dinner nor is our 30th year rugby reunion dinner just a day before, a sign of protest.
On the night, we will be honoring our former coach, Mr Yiew Siew Seng and also present school coach Tiger Ahmad Din who is responsible for so much of the successes of the KEVII rugby teams after "Pak Yiew" left the school in 1986. The get-together will mean more to us than number 125. It will be a blast!
I shall not be attending the 125 anniversary dinner on the next day but it is not because I am a lesser Tiger. My presence has been requested in Pahang; a buddy is getting married to his fourth wife! Now, that IS a significant number!